Wednesday 10 November 2021
Malcolm Spencer Brown passed away of this life, with courage and determination, on November 3, 2021. He passed away peacefully at home, his wife Anne and daughter Melissa by his side.
A Renaissance man, Brown moved easily from philosophy to mathematics, including environmental and social justice work. A professor emeritus of Greek philosophy at Brooklyn College and a specialist in the work of Plato, Brown was also a pioneer in renewable energy and community-run public radio.
Born in Beirut, Lebanon, to missionary doctors Roswell and Enid Crump Brown on February 27, 1932, Brown grew up in Buffalo, NY, and married three times. With his first wife, Carol Gardner, he had three children, Duncan, Charlotte and Lydia. With his second, Virginia Hayden, he had two, Melissa and Greg. He is survived by his wife of 37 years, Anne Larsen, his brother Norm and his family; Carol, Duncan and Lydia Brown; Virginia Brown and Melissa Brown Neubauer, her husband Kurt and their grandchildren, Tess and Alec Neubauer. Special friends, Kevin and Barbara Gref, also survive. He is predeceased by his son Greg, his daughter Charlotte and his granddaughter Haley.
Malcolm graduated from Amherst College in 1953, received his doctorate from Columbia University, and taught philosophy at colleges such as Reed, St. John’s (Annapolis), Barnard, and 17 at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. While at Barnard College, he was known to commute to class by cycling across the George Washington Bridge from his home in Leonia, New Jersey. In 1970, he spent a year as a fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in DC to continue his research in mathematics at the Old Academy. At CUNY, he pioneered the integration of computers into humanities research, and during the 1970s he ardently transliterated Greek into machine-readable form. He published a word concordance to Euclid and other ancient authors using modems, mainframes, and with the help of his student and lifelong friend, Philippe Charles. In the 1970s and early 1980s, Brown published and presented papers at academic conferences in the United States, France, and England. He also edited texts still in use in college classrooms.
After marrying Anne on a cycling trip to Alaska in 1985, Malcolm took early retirement from his college homework to pursue his other interests, moving into an “unrenovated” barn with little running water, heating in the oven. woods and an outhouse in the Catskill Mountains of New York. There he cultivated, kept up to 60 beehives and began another phase of his life. He and Anne developed a micro hydroelectric facility on a small dam in Jeffersonville, NY, negotiated a contract with the utility company, and founded the community public radio station WJFF on adjacent land in 1990, creating the only station directly hydropower in the nation. Malcolm was involved in the physical labor on all of his projects, alongside construction workers and many volunteers, and when it was time to hang up the transmitter, he climbed the tower with the engineer. He also made an announcement in turn with particularly calming, but confident on-air demeanor, leading a listener to comment, “If I’m going to hear about the end of the world, I want to hear Malcolm’s voice tell me. “(wjffradio.org)
In 1992 he spent a year in post-communist Bulgaria, where he taught philosophy, while Anne established a library at a newly established liberal arts college, the American University of Bulgaria. Upon their return, they opened The Good Earth health food store on Main Street, Jeffersonville. After several years, they moved to Hull, Massachusetts, where Malcolm championed wind power, being elected to the Light Board on a renewable energy platform. The first commercial-size turbine on the East Coast, Hull Wind 1, began generating electricity in 2001, followed by the first turbine on a covered landfill, Hull Wind 2. Malcolm has been aptly called “the Johnny. Appleseed of Wind “for his tireless work in disseminating Hull’s accomplishments to other cities in Massachusetts. (hullwind.com)
Years later, Malcolm returned to his academic work, doing research at Harvard University and visiting manuscript collections and academics in Oxford, Helsinki, Amsterdam, Rome, Florence, and Venice. In 2004, he delivered this year’s Rosamond Sprague lecture in South Carolina, “Theaetetus, the Man and his Work: Recovering Some Fragments”. In it, he announced his idea of making the AE Taylor translation of Plato’s Theaetetus digitally accessible, now in manuscript at the University of Edinburgh library. His interest in computerized open access led him to facilitate the digitization of Venetus T at the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. As was often the case, he connected people, asked questions, and discovered that the Venetian photographer was the nephew of a classmate from Amherst. Her scholarship continued until the end, with the last post on her website in the summer of 2021. (YoungerSocrates.com)
Some might be tempted to reduce Malcolm’s greatest power to his intellect alone, based on his sharp mind and seemingly endless access to the data stored inside. It would be a mistake to overlook her other charms, which included gifts traditionally given to the right brain. He taught himself to carve wood into pieces of art, including a set of figurative chess pieces, he sang with a choir, learned to play the recorder, designed his own dials handmade sunglasses (including one made by cutting a tennis ball in half), and solved all manner of life’s puzzles with his own creatively designed tools. Malcolm’s extraordinarily sensitive nature allowed him to “read” emotions in all circumstances. He greatly protected the feelings of others, even refraining from acknowledging to his superior mind if there could be any hint of arrogance. He was playful and cunning and enjoyed puns and gentle teasing. He did not hesitate to express his love and approached all people with kindness, concern and respect. Malcolm was also happy to be greeted with joy by Roberto, a busman of the Blue Colony Diner, and to be complimented on his French by President Mitterrand.
A social justice activist, he put his body on the line on several occasions, including in his 80s during the Great Anti-Trump Women’s March in 2017. During the Vietnam War, he proved via an analysis of the solar angle that a magazine cover of an anti-war march had been falsely time-stamped to reflect a smaller crowd. It was ahead of its time in many areas, from recycling in the ’70s to driving electric cars in the’ 90s to its current rechargeable Volt. The Biden administration’s actions on climate change, renewables, high-speed rail, offshore wind farms and charging stations nationwide have left him dying confident about the future.
Malcolm’s scholarship looked for hapax legomena, words or phrases that appear only once, to identify different authorship in ancient texts. Hapax legomenon is a transliteration of the Greek ἅπαξ λεγόμενον, which means “to be said once”. As a human he was just that: singular and unique and will be sadly missed by those who loved and admired him.
There will be no funeral or visitation.
A future celebration of life is planned. To be informed, send an e-mail [email protected].
Memorial contributions can be made to the Catskill Mountain Institute dba The Malcolm Brown Institute for Purposeful Living, PO Box 567, Jeffersonville, NY, 12748, the ACLU or plant a tree in his honor.